The City of Dreams
Ever since I was little, I dreamed of Vienna. I used to carpool with my cousins every summer as my classical music-loving aunt drove us around the city to various music lessons, math centres, art classes, summer camps, and other random activities that Asian parents can’t seem to get enough of. One summer she got her hands on a cassette tape of a children’s story built around Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and I don’t think we played anything else in the van for two whole months. I don’t remember much about that particular tape anymore, maybe a few stray notes from the Queen of the Night’s aria, but there’s a brief segment where the narrator describes sitting at a cafe in Vienna, eating chocolate in the sunshine, and for whatever reason that really stuck with me. From that moment on, I wanted to eat chocolate in a Viennese cafe.
Fast forward a few decades and I’ve got another Viennese dream, one born of a different kind of nostalgia, a false one conjured up by a romanticized idea of empire. I felt the same way about Istanbul, another former imperial city haunted by the monuments of past glory, before I visited back in 2014. This Vienna was the cultural Vienna of Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss, the intellectual Vienna of Freud, Schrodinger, and Wittgenstein, and the cosmopolitan Vienna that had Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, and Stalin walking the same boulevards and patronizing the same cafes in the last years of the empire, before the Great War put an end to the Austrian imperial dream for good.
This past Christmas I got a chance to walk a little bit in these dreams with Ashley and Miles. Ashley and I had been to Austria before, most recently in 2013 when we snowboarded in Damuls, a ski area in the far western corner of the Austrian panhandle close to the borders of Germany and Switzerland. This would be our first time in Vienna, though, and only our second time traveling with just us two and Miles.
One lesson we learned in Cambodia last year was to prioritise booking a hotel room with a separate bedroom so we could put Miles to bed without then sentencing ourselves to an entire evening of whispering in the dark. The HiLight Suites Hotel checked that box and more – friendly and helpful staff, a brilliant breakfast spread, and just a couple minutes’ walk from the historic Innere Stadt district of the city. We spent almost all of our time in and around the city centre, and though there are tram lines that follow the Ringstrasse around the Innere Stadt, we were fine with just walking everywhere. Walking from one end to the other took maybe 45 minutes, and every step was in the shadows of some of the most impressive and beautiful city architecture I’d ever seen.
Vienna’s coffeehouse scene is the stuff of legend, from its folkloric origins in the wake of the second Ottoman siege in 1683, when victorious Hapsburg soldiers found bags of strange beans left behind by the retreating Turks, to its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th Century, when many of the era’s leading political, intellectual, and cultural figures would gather in cafes scattered across the city centre. Café Central was a favourite haunt of Trotsky, Tito, and Hitler, while Freud and Mahler could be found in nearby Café Landtmann. Meanwhile Demel’s imperial connections explained the princesses that could be found within its premises, and even an occasional empress, and the now defunct Café Griensteidl was popular with the likes of Arnold Schoenberg, Stefan Zweig, and other members of the city’s vaunted arts and culture scene.
Café Schwarzenberg is the oldest coffeehouse on the Ringstrasse, serving hot drinks and pastries to the Viennese public since 1861. Historically this was the café for the city’s business and finance leaders, and though it has its fair share of tourist clientele these days (us included), it remains popular with the local populace (whatever that means to you). The beautiful interior has remained largely unchanged since the late 19th Century, though there was some remodeling needed after Soviet Red Army soldiers used it, and not gently, for a mess hall in the the late 1940s and early 1950s.
We went in the morning, just a few hours after landing in Vienna with a baby who refused to sleep on the overnight flight from Taipei, and who also refused to nap at the hotel. The prospect of dealing with a fussy, over-tired almost-toddler while interacting with the city’s famously curt waitstaff did make me hesitate a little bit, but in we went anyway.
It wasn’t that bad. Actually it went pretty well. Miles was playful without being destructive, and the waitstaff were perfectly fine. Not overly friendly or effusive, but efficient and purposeful. Ashley and I both ordered a Franziskaner, a small espresso with creamy milk and whipped cream, and I got their Viennese breakfast while Ashley had scrambled eggs with sacher sausages. To top off our bellies we added a Viennese soup pot – boiled beef, vegetables, and noodles – at the end of the meal, and that really hit the spot after walking around in the cold.
What is it about a really impressive library that stirs something in the hearts of book lovers (and non-book lovers) everywhere? Is it the overwhelming presence of millions of inner worlds waiting silently on shelves and tables to be opened by the right finger, the right mind? Is it the feeling of being dwarfed by this universe within a universe, the temptation to crawl into its hidden nooks and corners and settle in with a good book and all the time in the world? Is it the fact that the space itself is a celebration, and an elevation, of the act of reading? Last summer we spent a morning at the stunning La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library Victoria in Melbourne, and it hit all those notes and more.
The Austrian National Library’s State Hall, or Prunksaal, is not quite at the scale of the La Trobe, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in history and grandeur. Created out of the old imperial collections and archives of the ruling Hapsburgs, with some materials dating back to the 4th Century, the current library was constructed in the early 18th Century as a permanent home for the various manuscripts and texts acquired through centuries of painstaking translation, costly acquisition, and political marriage. The Prunksaal is the heart of the old imperial library, all marble columns, gold statuary, colourful frescoes, and elegant bookshelves shaped out of dark walnut. La Trobe, while grand, still had a functional aspect to it. This space seemed too beautiful to use, like the library itself had a secondary (or maybe it was the primary) function to convey something of the Hapsburgs and how they perceived their place in the universe.
I actually found it difficult to take photos there. My simple ‘eyeball’ test when taking photos is if I can’t see anything to take a photo of, I’m either too far away or too close. This works maybe 90% of the time. With everything going on in the Prunksaal, however, I struggled to decide on what to focus my camera on, and the cramped quarters had me trying to puzzle out how to get a sense of the scale of the place. Sometimes I’d peep at what the other tourists were taking photos of, but in the end I just took some random shots and these are the ones that I thought were worth keeping.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, referred to locally as Stephansdom, is a major landmark in the Innere Stadt district of the city. The current structure is largely a product of the 15th Century, though earlier iterations of the church had stood for centuries prior. Standing at one end of the Graben, Vienna’s main pedestrian thoroughfare through the old town, Stephansdom is impossible to miss, and we found ourselves walking past its massive south tower and beautifully tiled roof a number of times as we traipsed back and forth across the city.
There was one day where it rained pretty much all morning and every tourist in the vicinity seemed to have the same idea: take shelter inside Stephansdom. It was a little cold and wet, but there was also a little bit of an accidental community vibe. There were the regular worshipers, the out-of-town religious folks, the curious tourists stumbling around with cameras around our necks, and, probably the biggest crowd, the tired travelers dozing off in pews and benches scattered along the back and side walls. The entrance way and the left-most aisle up to about the midway point of the church were free – the centre aisles and the front of the church restricted to paying guests, or members of the church presumably. You still get a great view of the sanctuary from the free area, though, and I feel like the wet and grey conditions outside had me looking at the warmly-lit interior in a different way.
I’ll stop here because I need to stop somewhere. Vienna is an absolutely beautiful city, though, and I’ve got some more thoughts and photos from our brief time there that I’ll try to jot down and narrativise over the coming days and weeks. This may or may not include festive Christmas markets, opulent palaces, stunning Baroque architecture, and … more Christmas markets. Christmas markets were huge for us. I’ll probably write about those next.